For a lingering moment in the late-afternoon light at Churchill Downs, Paul Mellon looked as though he had just stepped out of a painting of a winner's-circle scene in England or on the Continent—at Epsom, say, or Longchamp or Newmarket. Wearing a brown felt hat and an impeccably tailored gray suit, Mellon appeared every inch the international sportsman he is as he stepped onto the Downs' grass course and began making his way toward the winner's enclosure, setting his cane on the deep turf in time with his deliberate gait. After all these years in the racing game, the 85-year-old Virginian was not about to meet this crowning moment on anything but his own power.
"I'll hold on to you," a track attendant said, taking Mellon's right arm as he moved across the grass.
"I really don't need it, thank you," Mellon replied. And after all those walks to the world's most-celebrated winner's circles—in 1971 his brilliant colt Mill Reef had won both the Epsom Derby in England and the world's most prestigious race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, at Long-champ in Paris—even this man could not escape the sense of wonder at what he had just witnessed last Saturday afternoon in the 119th running of the Kentucky Derby. "I can hardly believe it," he said as photographers dashed madly around him and guards with walkie-talkies cleared his path. "I'm in awe."
Five minutes earlier Mellon's homebred bay colt, Sea Hero, a son of Polish Navy and the fine broodmare Glowing Tribute, had come charging through a gap along the rail at the top of the stretch, run down the game but tiring Personal Hope in the upper stretch and bounded off to an emphatic 2½-length victory in 2:02⅖ decent but unremarkable time for the 1¼-mile race. There was some evidence of divine intervention in this Derby, with the outcome arranged by the Fates. Sea Hero not only gave Mellon—who sold most of his breeding stock last fall as a first step in his plan to get out of the game—his first Kentucky Derby win but also broke the Derby maiden of his trainer, 71-year-old Hall of Famer MacKenzie Miller, as well as that of Jerry Bailey, his 35-year-old jockey. Bailey, in fact, had such a miraculously clean trip (with walls of horses graciously moving aside for him, thank you very much) that the experience, on reflection, seemed to have come out of the Old Testament.
"It was kind of like the Red Sea," Bailey said. "Every time I got to a position where it was crucial, they parted for me."
And there was the remarkable return of the horse himself. That Sea Hero made it to the Derby, after melting like a Popsicle in Florida's heat this winter, had an otherworldly dimension. Just two months earlier he had performed so dismally in two races at Gulfstream Park, in Hallandale, Fla., that Miller had given up on him as a Derby contender. For those who had admired and followed Mellon's extraordinary 60-year career as a thoroughbred owner and breeder, Sea Hero's disappearance from the 3-year-old scene had a poignancy to it, for the colt was perceived as perhaps Mellon's last, best chance to win America's most important race.
Not that Mellon was at all troubled by this. Unlike so many owners, he was never obsessed with the desire to win the Derby, though he took his chances when he thought he had one. Before Saturday he had started three horses in the race, and the closest he had come to winning it was in 1969, when Arts and Letters fell a neck short of beating Majestic Prince. Five weeks later, after finishing second to the Prince again, beaten by a head in the Preakness, Arts and Letters finally whipped his archrival, by 5½ lengths, in the Belmont Stakes and went on to be voted Horse of the Year. Arts and Letters was the finest horse that Mellon ever bred and raced in the U.S. Mill Reef, who campaigned exclusively in Europe, was his single greatest triumph as a breeder-owner, but that horse was just one of many American stakes winners to come out of Mellon's Rokeby Farms, in Upperville, Va., a spectacular 4,000-acre estate with sweeping vistas and enormous paddocks, gardens and greenhouses, libraries of rare books and one of the finest private art collections in the world.
Paul is the son of financier Andrew William Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury under presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover and the ambassador to the Court of St. James's in 1932-33. Andrew Mellon was the original benefactor of Washington's National Gallery of Art, which he built for $16 million and to which he donated his $50 million art collection. Paul inherited his father's enthusiasm for philanthropy and art, donating millions to conservation projects; to his alma mater, Yale University; and to the National Gallery, where he eventually served as president. An accomplished horseman, he rode to hounds and competed in timber and endurance races. Over the years, Mellon built Rokeby into a powerful thoroughbred nursery that was home to scores of royally bred mares who regularly produced exceptional racehorses to carry his distinctive gray-and-yellow silks.
Mellon's career, of course, has not been without the stinging setbacks that haunt all owners in this sport. "I've had a lot of disappointments," he says. "I had two or three horses who looked as though they might go to the Derby and then were injured." In 1990 Red Ransom was looking very promising as a 3-year-old when he broke a sesamoid bone and had to be retired. That same year the 2-year-old Eastern Echo won the Futurity at Belmont Park and looked like the best horse Mellon had bred since Key to the Mint, the 3-year-old champion of 1972. But Eastern Echo also fractured a sesamoid, and limped off to the stud. "He was as good a horse as I've ever trained," says Miller, who has handled Mellon's horses for 16 years and earned a reputation as one of the most astute trainers of grass horses in the U.S.
By the time Eastern Echo went down. Glowing Tribute had given birth to her bay colt by Polish Navy. An attractive youngster, well built and athletic, Sea Hero looked like a racehorse from the day he hit the track. Miller is a patient conditioner of young horses, and the colt did not break his maiden until his fourth start, on Sept. 7, when Miller ran him for the first time on the turf at Belmont Park and he won by more than two lengths. After another victory on the turf two weeks later, Miller cranked Sea Hero up for the most important 2-year-old race in New York, the Champagne Stakes, on Oct. 10, and he promptly ripped through a mile in 1:34⅘ winning by almost six lengths, and announcing himself as the best of his crop in New York and one of the fastest youngsters in the nation. Seeking the juvenile championship, Miller shipped him down to Gulfstream Park for the Breeders' Cup, on Oct. 31. That was when the problems began.
"It was hotter than the hinges of hell down there," Miller said a few days before the Kentucky Derby. "It was 40 degrees in New York and 87 degrees in Florida when we got there. He wilted like a flower." The colt finished seventh in the Juvenile, beaten by 8¾ lengths by Gilded Time. During the winter, Miller conditions his Rokeby horses at a training center in Aiken, S.C., and after the Breeders' Cup he shipped Sea Hero there with his other horses. On Dec. 5, looking to get him ready for the Derby by campaigning him through Florida, Miller again sent Sea Hero south, to his friend, trainer Scotty Schulhofer. The colt was at Gulfstream for nearly three months, but he never adjusted to the humidity and the heat.
"He hated Florida, as I do," says Miller. "He just melted. And he hated the track, too." In his first Florida start as a 3-year-old, the Palm Beach Stakes on Feb. 7, he finished ninth, beaten by 12½ lengths. Eighteen days later Miller tried him in an allowance race at Gulfstream, and he finished third but had no zip. Five days after that the colt was back in cooler Aiken. "He immediately picked his head up," Miller says. "His coat and his appetite came back. He started blooming."
By then most everyone on the Derby watch had dismissed the colt, but Miller had not. Nor had Mellon. "He felt a lot better in Aiken, and he worked well," Mellon says. "So we thought, Why not take a shot?" Miller suggested the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course on April 10.
"I'd love to do that," Mellon said. So they were off to Keeneland, with a much fitter horse than anyone had even imagined. The Aiken training track is deep and tiring, and Sea Hero's daily gallops and workouts over it were obviously just what he needed to get fit. He flourished in Kentucky. "We had a cold spring at Keeneland, and he loved it," Miller says. Sea Hero finished fourth in the Blue Grass, but he was beaten by only 2¾ lengths by then Derby favorite Prairie Bayou, so Miller and Mellon decided to send him to Louisville. "He ran well enough to make mc think he was entitled to come here," says Miller.
Few handicappers took Sea Hero seriously as a Derby contender. He had not won a race since the Champagne, almost six months before, and he simply did not figure to have what he needed to go a mile and a quarter. But Mellon, recently out of the hospital following a bout of pneumonia, thought enough of Sea Hero to make the trip to Churchill Downs himself. He figured he had an edge. On Saturday he and his wife, Bunny, would celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. It was their day. "Wouldn't it be great to win the Kentucky Derby on our anniversary?" he said to Bunny on the morning of the race as they prepared to fly to Louisville from Virginia in their private jet. They arrived at the track just before 4 p.m. An hour and a half later, all the doors opened magically for Jerry Bailey.
The jockey wrapped up on Sea Hero in the first run past the stands, and they were 13th and saving ground on the rail as they rounded the first turn. The colt began picking up the beat down the backside, and all Bailey had to do was sit there. Every time he came to a flight of horses, the sea parted for the Hero. "As I got to each bunch, the horses got tired and split apart," he says. Turning for home, only three lengths behind the leader, he had the rail on his left and horses to the right of him, horses in front of him and no place to go. Then Bailey saw a path between front-running Personal Hope and the rail. "The hole was huge," Bailey says, "especially the second time I looked at it. I knew I could get there."
By the eighth pole Sea Hero was drawing off to win with a flourish. Minutes later there was the gray-haired squire from Virginia crossing the track on his own, declining helping hands as he walked with a cane toward the winner's circle—one of the last of the great gentlemen breeders, a man who had bred horses for the love and sport of it, who had made this game what it once was and may never be again.
"It's something you never believe is going to happen, and then it happens," Mellon said. "It's been a wonderful day."
Bailey raised a hand in triumph after crossing the line for his first Derby victory.
It's hard to top the heady experience of a Derby, but these fans did their best.
Going into the first turn, Sea Hero and Bailey (far right) were 13th in the 19-horse field.
It's never too late: Mellon (center) and Miller were delighted to finally smell the roses.